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Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nuñez

by Nella Hoots

Born around 1490 in a tiny Andalusian town called Jérez de la Frontera to Francisco de Vera and Teresa Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca is remembered as being the first European to see and explore the southwestern United States. Cabeza de Vaca’s name, which means "head of a cow," comes from his mother’s side of the family. In 1212, during the Spanish reconquest, one of Teresa’s ancestors, Martín Alhajahad, marked an unguarded mountain pass with a cow skull. The Spanish Christians attacked the Moors and won the battle "Las Navas de Tolosa." King Sancho of Navarre honored Alhajahad and his descendents with the name "Cabeza de Vaca." Although Alvar could have chosen to use his father’s surname, he preferred his mother’s surname and used it throughout his life.
Cabeza de Vaca spent his youth in Jérez and later joined the military where he was sent to Italy to fight in the battle of Ravenna in 1512. Although the battle was won by the French, Cabeza de Vaca was still promoted to the rank of alferez (ensign) for bravery. In 1513 he served as an aide to the Duke of Medina, Sidonia. He then fought in behalf of King Charles I (Emperor Charles V) during the Comuneros revolt. His loyalty obviously captured the king’s attention, for at age forty, Cabeza de Vaca received the appointment that would not only change his life but also the future of the New World. In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed as treasurer of a royal expedition to Florida led by Pánfilo de Narváez. As treasurer, Cabeza de Vaca was second in command.
        Cabeza de Vaca would have been considered as an educated man during his historical period, for he could read and write. He had also memorized various selections from the Bible, as well as the facts of major historical events. He was an expert, therefore, on trivia. All well-educated Spaniards were familiar with a novel by St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, which contained a chapter debating whether the descendents of the "sons of God and daughters of men" mentioned in Genesis had produced bizarre, abnormal offspring. Medieval churches were adorned with griffins and gargoyles. Thus, Medieval people, including Spanish conquistadors, believed in the existence of strange creatures such as dwarfs, giants, Amazon women, human beings with tails, etc. This fact makes it easier to understand why so many explorers were susceptible to the Amerindian myths about cities of gold and a fountain of youth.
        The Spanish explorers were motivated not only by a desire for fame and fortune but also by their religious zeal. Their faith caused them to spread Catholicism and convert pagans. Cabeza de Vaca, of course, was governed by these same principles. His unique experience with the natives after his shipwreck, however, changed his European views forever. Most Spaniards felt a sense of Christian superiority to the native pagans. Cabeza de Vaca learned to live among various tribes in friendship and even became a shaman for some of them. His new ideas would cause trouble for him later in his life when he returned to his own people.
        Pánfilo de Narváez and Cabeza de Vaca originally began their journey to the New World with five vessels and six hundred men. When they arrived in Santo Domingo, one hundred forty men deserted. The next stop was in Cuba to get supplies. While there, a terrible hurricane hit the island. Two ships and sixty more men were lost, as well as twenty horses. They decided to spend the winter months in Cuba to acquire more boats and additional supplies.
        In April 1528, with five boats and four hundred men, they once again set sail, this time landing on the west coast of Florida. Narváez was convinced that the River of Palms was just a short distance away when it was actually more than 1500 miles. This miscalculation proved to be a grievous error, for it prompted Narváez to separate three hundred of his men from the ships in order to explore further inland. Within a few short hours, the expedition was forever lost. They were cut off from their supplies and stranded on the Florida coast. They traveled for several weeks until they arrived in northwestern Florida where they decided to camp for three months. However, they were running low on food, and nearby Indians were becoming hostile. As a result, the Spaniards realized they needed to leave Florida by sea. Adhering to the old adage, "necessity is the mother of invention," they first killed their horses for meat; then, they constructed five crude boats which they caulked with pine resin and palmetto fibers. They used their shirts and trousers for sails.
        On September 22, 1528, they set sail for the River of Palms. The first month at sea went very well, but on the thirty-first day, a vicious storm struck; and they ran out of water. After surviving the first storm, they eventually encountered a fresh-water stream that was flowing into the gulf. Shortly afterwards, another storm with greater north winds struck, blowing the five boats further out to sea. Within two days, all of the boats were completely separated. Cabeza de Vaca’s boat neared Narváez’s boat on the third day. When Cabeza de Vaca asked the leader how he was to follow out the governor’s commands, Narváez told him that no one was giving orders any more, and it was each man for himself. The boats were once again separated by yet another storm, and it was several days before Cabeza de Vaca’s boat reached shore. By this time, the Spaniards were weak from hunger. Many of them had fainted and were near the point of death. Only Cabeza de Vaca and one other man were able to till the boat.
        On November 6, 1528, the boat was finally cast ashore by a huge wave. Cabeza de Vaca and his men had landed on an island (which many historians believe was Galveston or a nearby island ). Cabeza de Vaca named the island Isla de Malhado, or Isle of Misfortune. The day before, a second boat had landed with approximately fifty men. Among these men were three who would become the only ones, other than Cabeza de Vaca, to survive the rest of the Narváez expedition. These men included the following: Andres Dorantes de Carranza; his African-born slave, Estevanico; and Alonso Castillo Maldonado. These four men would later be referred to as the "Four Ragged Castaways" in Relación, Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his journeys.
        Shortly after landing, the Spaniards were encountered by a band of Karankawa Indians who lived nearby. The Indians, taking mercy on the ragged men and using sign language, promised to return with food the following morning. The natives returned the next day with fish, edible roots, and water. The Indians themselves had a very limited diet, for food was scarce. After eating to regain their strength, Cabeza de Vaca’s men attempted to relaunch their boat. The boat, however, overturned, and three of the men drowned. The others lost whatever belongings they had left. After such a miserable journey, the men actually sat down and cried. Surprisingly, the Indians began to cry, too. The Spaniards were amazed, yet even more disheartened by this gesture; for they knew if uncivilized natives even wept for them, they must really be in trouble.
Thinking they must be close to the province of Pánuco, an expedition of four swimmers and an Indian guide headed down the coast. Cabeza de Vaca and his men spent the winter with the Indians. By Spring, only fourteen or fifteen of the Spaniards remaining on the island had survived. Others had died from exposure, hunger, and dysentery.
        Many of the Indians, too, had died from dysentery. At first the Indians blamed their illness on the Spaniards. Later, Cabeza de Vaca and the remaining Spaniards were compelled by the Indians to treat their illnesses. Cabeza de Vaca was hesitant to take on this responsibility, yet agreed because the Indians withheld food from him and his men until he agreed to do so. He became a sort of shaman to the Indians. Shamanism is based on a belief system of the hunter-gathering people who first crossed the Bering Straight. This belief stated that "all things, living or inanimate, human and animal, shared a cosmos and moved easily between the world of flesh and spirit. Only a chosen few, the shamans, could make the perilous journey to the other world. In the spirit world, shamans interceded with the supernatural forces for the well-being of the members of their communities." The shaman, or medicine man of the Karankawas, would normally make a cut where the pain was located and then suck the skin around the incisions. He would then cauterize the cut with fire and breathe on the spot to drive the disease away.
        The Spanish modified this process by doing the following: they would make the sign of the cross while breathing on the patient, recite a Pater Noster and Ave Maria, and then pray that God would grant good health. This practice proved to be remarkably successful. In return, the Indians treated Cabeza de Vaca and his men with the best food and showered them with gifts. Because of Cabeza de Vaca’s brief career as a shaman, he is considered to be the first curandero in Southwestern history. Curanderos combine Christian iconography with native belief systems and are still extremely popular today.
        Cabeza de Vaca is also honored as the patron saint of the Texas Surgical Society because of his surgical skills used on the Indians.
Also during that winter, five of his fellow Spaniards had become separated from the group and eventually resorted to cannibalism. When the Indians discovered this, they were appalled and immediately become hostile to the remaining Spaniards. Later, Cabeza de Vaca crossed over to the mainland and became ill. The other Spaniards, thinking he had died, decided to travel down the coast towards Mexico. When Cabeza de Vaca returned, he stayed with the Indians for four more years. He later chose to dwell further inland with some friendlier Indians, the Charruco.
Cabeza de Vaca would travel from one group of Indians to the next, in search of some of his fellow Christian Spaniards. He eventually ran into some of them. Many of the Spaniards were being held captive as slaves to the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca helped some of them escape. There are many tales of danger and adventure in Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación that explain these escapes. In 1532, only the four ragged castaways survived to travel on through Texas and the Southwest. He and his men finally made their way back to Mexico after almost ten years of wandering.
        In 1537 Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain to publish an account of his travels. He had been appalled by the treatment of the Indians in Mexico, and he hoped that his book would encourage the Spanish crown to be more generous to the Indians. He later served as a Mexican governor. De Vaca had developed a newfound respect for the Indians and their culture. While in office, he was accused of corruption because of his liberal treatment of the natives. He made it his mission to end the European enslavement of the Indians. He was convicted, sentenced to exile, and returned to Spain. He was pardoned in 1552 by the king and was allowed to become a judge in Seville, Spain for the remainder of his life. He died with honor.
        Cabeza de Vaca’s Relación does more than simply journal the travels of the explorer. It is considered remarkable not only because of its historical significance but also because of its literary and cultural aspects as well. Some critics consider it to be the first piece of Southwestern literature. It describes both the geography and the flora and fauna of Texas in great detail. Furthermore, its influence on anthropology is great because of the infinite details he included about each tribe of Indians that he encountered. His accounts included physical details of the natives as well as comments on religious customs, child-rearing methods, etc. Relación introduces themes that later American history texts return to again and again. Some of these themes include the following: the meeting and clashing of cultures, slavery, captivity, and the wonder and fear at the vastness of the American landscape. Although different disciplines appreciate this work for various reasons, they all revere the work as an irreplaceable source of information about 16th century life in the Southwest. Moreover, it examines "the assumptions and responses of an early European among natives of the Southwest, struggling to be a good Spanish subject, to be a Christian, and simply to survive." Most importantly, Cabeza de Vaca’s descriptions of the wealth he found served as a catalyst to inspire further exploration of these areas.

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca.  online: